A history of the “diner” in Syracuse

By Justin O'Neill

Doc’s Little Gem is the quintessential diner.

The Formica countertops are buffed cloudy from decades of Syracuse China plates, spilled coffee and countless elbows resting on them.

When a customer enters, they feel as if they warped back in time to when the small businesses thrived.

The original stainless steel structure has swapped owners every decade or so since 1957 — opening, closing and re-opening again.

Much to the sadness of Syracuse diner patrons, Doc’s Little Gem is currently is going through such a cycle again.

Francis “Doc” Good closed the diner’s doors for the last time in March citing high costs and his inability to secure a loan to increase the restaurant’s seating capacity. Good lamented in his Post-Standard commentary the state’s inability to aid small business through financially troubled times.

Doc’s Little Gem Diner followed in the footsteps of many predecessors since Walter Scott, the man credited with the birth of the modern American diner, first rolled his sandwich cart through the streets of Providence, R.I., in 1872.

When Scott’s cart went out of business after 34 years, he wrote a letter of explanation to the residents of Providence, explaining his decision:

“I don’t know who invented the slice of onion with the fried egg. I know I didn’t. With eggs and everything else high, there wasn’t much profit in a sandwich at five cents, especially if you added the piece of onion…. I’d probably be in business still if things weren’t so high.”

Syracuse’s dining roots

The local diner culture started well before Scott was credited with the invention of the American icon.

In the 19th Century, the city hosted a busy economy with the salt trade and Erie Canal bringing a lot of out-of-town traffic to the area. Central New York’s economic prosperity provided small businesses with a chance to thrive.

The coffee house, the closest relative of the modern diner, became popular with the working class as they had some of the diner’s characteristics:

The coffee houses that lined the Erie Canal and local railroad yards were the closest relative of the modern diner. They became popular with the working class as they had some of the diner’s characteristics, providing a quick meal that could be prepared and eaten on a break from work. Many served food around the clock, providing hearty, inexpensive meals; however, unlike the modern diner, the coffee houses turned off their stoves at night, leaving cold meals as the only option.

Welch’s Coffee House, located on South Salina Street, and Strong’s Coffee House, located at 18 E. Fayette Street, were known as some “of the best establishments of the kind in the world.” Both were located just blocks from the Canal and made sure their regular clientele were satisfied.

By the 1870s, enterprising owners worked to distinguish their businesses from the competition by keeping their grills open at all hours. Pierce and Schryver’s Eating House, located at the terminus of the Syracuse and Utica Railroad, pioneered this trend in December 1873.

Golden Age of Dining

In the early 20th Century, diners were a booming business dominated by a few companies in New York and New Jersey. These companies built prefabricated diner cars as they became known because of their resemblance to the Pullman railcars that were transporting people and goods across America.

These eateries were usually situated themselves near factories to feed the workers entering or leaving their workday, and in Syracuse that was the area now known as Carrier Circle.

The near Westside neighborhood was home H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company plant that produced cars in Syracuse from 1902 to 1934 ,and then the Carrier Company, which produced air conditioners there starting in 1937.

In 1957, this section of Syracuse was given another traffic boost when the New York State Thruway opened and travelers found exit 35 at Carrier Circle as a natural resting spot. Mother’s Cupboard Fish Fry and The Rise N’ Shine Diner, both located under a mile from Thruway, opened around that time.

Another of these historical diners is J R Diner, located near the intersection of I-81 and the New York State Thruway in Syracuse’s north side. This diner was built by the Rochester Grills company during its short run from 1936 to 1940. It was originally called “Griffeth’s Swanky Diner” and located at East Fayette Street, but was later moved to its current location. According to diner expert, Michael Engle, it is just one of two Rochester Grills diners still serving food in Central New York.

But factories and highways weren’t the only industries that supported the dining business. In 1945, Vincent Claps took the diners back to their roots, by selling sandwiches out of a 1937 Dodge to construction workers on “Piety Hill,” as the University neighborhood was then known.

One snowy evening, construction workers left early, and Claps had plenty of sandwiches left. Driving down Comstock Avenue, he was flagged down by some students. He sold the rest of his stock, and soon began targeting hungry students by driving around the campus area. Claps eventually upgraded to a truck with an electric griddle, installed a bell and became known to students as “The Dingle Man.” While not a traditional diner, by definition, his sandwich cart served the students in the same way that diners made their niche.

Modern competition

From their inception, diners had little competition. Good, inexpensive food, served quickly by a waitress or cook who knew their customers was a certain business model for nearly half a century.

But in the 1950s and ’60s, fast food chains and cafeterias revolutionized the way Americans ate.

Fast food chains such as McDonald’s wanted to capitalize on diners’ success by targeting interstate travelers wanting to get back on the road with clean restaurants that featured speedy service. Behind the counter, McDonald’s incorporating an assembly line to mass-produce hamburgers.

Waldorf Cafeterias, which had more than 100 restaurants including five in Syracuse by the mid-1960s, and Red Barn, which opened its first outlet in Syracuse, opted for a self-service system to keep costs down.

During these time, Syracuse diners fought to keep up with their customers’ demands by providing what the fast food chains can’t: friendly service that cares about their customers and seeks to accommodate their needs.

While today’s diners have a challenge in getting customers’ attention through the big box competition, the thriving diner culture around the city testifies that customers respond to consistent service, said Tony Imbesi, owner of The Market Diner.

Throughout the history of diners, one truth has become apparent: as soon as a small business owner sees an opportunity, he or she takes it.

Just weeks before Doc’s Little Gem went out of business, the Miss Syracuse Diner, “officially” known as JJ’s Boca Brande, made a comeback thanks to new owner Joe Todisco.

The classic diner car located on Water Street began serving its regular customers even though the owner’s face had changed once again.

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One Response to “A history of the “diner” in Syracuse”

  1. Harvey Jacobs says:

    There was, back in 1947, a restauant on Marshall St. near the Cosmo. I would like much to know the name of that place where I once spilled a cherry sundae on a frat boy by accident ???
    Thanks, Harvey Jacobs e mail celgo@aol.com

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